County faces $80,000 shortfall in health insurance funds (650)

LACONIA — Faced with a possible $80,000 shortfall to cover health insurance costs for county employees, Belknap County Commissioners are encouraging the 30 non-union employees of the county to shift their insurance to a site of service plan from a more-costly HMO plan.

Commissioners say that their plan calls for a 1.4 cost of living increase plus a step increase for eligible employees retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year which would add another 3 percent to their pay.

The county would also pay the entire tab for the site of service plan, which, according to Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton), would reduce the county's costs by $1,374 for a single plan, $3,050 for a two-person plan and $4,119 for a family plan compared to what the county currently pays as its share of the HMO plan.

Currently county employees pay either 5 percent or 6.5 percent of their premiums on the more costly HMO plans, which DeVoy said will subject the county to paying a 40 percent ''Cadillac tax'' on those plans in 2018 unless their costs can be brought down by that time. He says that it is estimated that the tax would $150,000 to the county budget at that time.

Both DeVoy and Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) said that they were amenable to a wage increase based on the savings the county will realize by a shift to the a site of service plan and are hoping that many employees will switch over to that plan by July 1.

Currently the county offers two plans, an HMO with a $20 co-pay and a site of service plan with a $1,000 deductible.

The HMO costs $845.19 a month for a single plan, with a weekly payroll deduction of $12.68, $1,690.37 per month for a two-person plan with a weekly payroll deduction of $19.50, and $2,282 a month for a family plan with a weekly payroll deduction of $26.33.

The site of service plan costs $675.77 a month for a single plan, $1,351.55 a month for a two-person plan, and $1,824.59 a month for a family plan. There are no payroll deductions for those plans.

Taylor, who is heading up negotiations with the county's four labor unions, said last week that he is trying to get the HMO changed to a site of service plan in a new contract and has had some success with one of the unions, but that the other three are not looking favorably upon the proposal.

He said that the commissioners should be meeting with the County Convention to discuss the projected shortfall in the near future so that a plan can be worked out to deal with it. ''The longer you wait, the more drastic action will be required. We don't want to wait until August or September,'' said Taylor.

DeVoy said that the commissioners don't want to weaken employee morale with talks of possible layoffs and said that the county budget contains $200,000 in contingency money, a portion of which could be used to fund the projected shortfall.

DeVoy and Taylor suggested that an employee who made $50,000 a year and was on a family plan would realize a $2,200 raise and a reduction of $1,400 in health insurance premium costs, which would help offset the $1,000 deductible in the site of service plan.

Commissioner Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) questioned those numbers and cautioned that employees at the top of the wage scale within their bracket might not be receiving enough of a wage increase to cover their increased costs.

He also said that he thinks it is important that the commissioners meet with the convention to discuss the situation, observing that the plan to save the county money on insurance costs can't be put in place without the cooperation of the unions.

DeVoy and Taylor said that they wanted to see every employee come out ahead in the contract negotiations.
''Right now we're bogged own,'' said Taylor, who along with the other commissioners agreed to hold off on hiring for any positions not deemed vital until commissioners know their situation better.

State budget writers defend their work

LACONIA — With the Legislature set to adopt its 2016-2017 state budget and Gov. Maggie Hassan set to veto it, two of its principal architects — Sen. Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) — have taken to the road in defense of their handiwork.

With the House and Senate expected to approve the budget on Wednesday. Forrester and Bradley spoke to the Laconia Daily Sun yesterday, just days after the legislative leadership announced they would introduce a continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown and the governor urged them to return to bargaining table.

Bradley said that the differences with the governor primarily turned on three issues — the Legislature's determination to reduce business taxes, failure to fund a pay raise negotiated with the State Employees Association and unwillingness to fund the Health Protection Program, which expanded Medicaid.

He stressed that the Senate, with several more months of tax receipts than the House, was able to increase revenue projections by about $120 million and restore many of the cuts to the governor's budget made by the House.

The increased revenues identified by the Senate include increasing the surplus carried forward at the close of the current fiscal year from $34 million to $49 million, while at the same time adding about $13 million to the rainy day fund. The governor has voiced misgivings about both projections.

Forrester, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, noted that the Senate added $18 million to the appropriation for substance abuse treatment, bringing the total to $42 million, which will be supplemented by $2.5 in federal funding in each year of the biennium. She acknowledged that the $6.7 million appropriated for the treatment of alcohol abuse is less than the $9 million recommended by the governor and the $17 million stipulated by statute, but it is $2.7 more than has ever been directed at the problem.

The budget, Forrester continued, includes a 5 percent increase in the reimbursement rate paid to home health care providers, like the visiting nurse associations and Granite State Independent Living, the first increase since 2004. Bradley remarked that despite an 8 percent increase in the budget of the University System of New Hampshire "they're still mad at us."

"It's a good budget," Forrester insisted. "We've made a lot of compromises."

However, neither senator indicated a willingness to forego reductions in business taxes, to fund the state employees contract or commit to reauthorizing the Health Protection Program.

Forrester said that the Senate decided to reduce business taxes only at the end of the budget process when funds were allocated for other important responsibilities. Although the governor claims the reductions will diminish state revenues by $90 million, Bradley said that claims the cuts are not paid for are not true. He said that Business Profits Tax would be reduced from 8.5 percent -- the highest rate in New England and among the highest in the country -- to 7.9 percent, one-tenth of 1 percent below the rate in Massachusetts, over seven years.

""It's not a philosophical issue," Bradley. "It's a practical issue, a competitive issue." He said that the lower rates would help contribute to retaining and expanding local businesses, adding: "We've never said it's a silver bullet, never tried to oversell it." At the same time, he said that the Senate has taken steps to reduce the cost of workers compensation, electric rates and health insurance to improve the business climate.

Forrester emphasized that measures to ensure local businesses remain competitive are necessary because the private sector generates much of the revenue required to fund the programs and services offered by state government,

Bradley said that the Senate has offered to fund the state employees contract in the second year of the biennium, beginning on July 1, 2016. "The Senate is open-minded to funding the pay raise," he said. "The Republicans are not averse to this, but it's hard to shoe-horn $30 million into the budget."

Both Bradley and Forrester played key roles in introducing the Health Protection Program, which divided the Republican majority and carried the Senate by controversial bipartisan vote in in the Senate last year. The program is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2016. Rather than reauthorize it as part of the biennial budget process, the Republican majority in the Senate preferred to evaluate tits operation and address its reauthorization next year in separate legislation. Bradley said that he intended to sponsor such legislation, adding: "I hope it will be reauthorized."

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Forrester, who expressed concern about the future of the federal funding to operate the program as it was designed. She also wanted to review the program to ensure that it reduces the shifting of health care costs from the uninsured and under-insured to the private insurance market. "I want to see the numbers," she said.

Anticipating that the governor will veto the budget and conceding the Legislature lacks the votes to override her veto, Bradley said that a continuing resolution will be introduced to keep government operating at current levels for six months. "No one wins in a government shutdown," he said.

No glass ceiling at biker bars; meet a couple of local owners

LACONIA — Biker bars owned and operated by - gulp – women. Unheard of in the old rock 'em sock 'em world of bad boys, smoke-filled rooms, and the occasional argument over a pool game or fist fight over a hot broad at bar time.

Not so if one were to ask Michelle Watson of The Looney Bin and Melissa Penland of the newly-reopened Broken Spoke Saloon — both of which are located at the Weirs.

For Michelle, who took about an half hour to sit down and take a well-deserved break after the dinner rush and before the band started playing on night this week, there's one thing that used to bother her but now she makes a great sport of it.

"I love it when people call and say, 'when will the owner be in,'" she said. "Now I just say 'never' and hang up."

She said she used to work at the Boot Hill Saloon and has pretty much heard every inappropriate comment that can be made.

"But," she said, "my stress reliever is going to the gym and I'm pretty capable.

"In fact, I just learned this week that someone called me an 'awesome bad-ass,'" Watson said with a laugh. "I kinda like it."

For Melissa, owning biker bars in Laconia and Daytona and a portion of a campground in Sturgis is one of natural progression.

"I grew up in Daytona and learned that every date is an event," she said. As for being a female bar owner, she just laughed.

"I can name you four bars along the Daytona Strip that are all owned by women," she said, naming Sally at the Iron Horse, Theresa at One Main Street, and Betty at Smiley's Tavern.

Although both owners are women, they come from different backgrounds and experience. The one thing they share is that they both came from bar and saloon backgrounds when they were younger and both know nearly every aspect to running a bar and restaurant through their own trials and tribulations.

Michelle went to college to become a graphic designer. Along with her chef who has been with her all 10 years, she designs a new line of Looney Bin wear for each year. She said some of them are dated — this year's commemorates her 10th anniversary — and some of them aren't.

All of the Looney Bin's food is from homemade recipes handed down to Michelle by her parents and grandparents. "When you get a reuben sandwich at the Looney Bin, all of the corned beef has been home-cooked," she said.

In preparation for Motorcycle Week, she spend days making 80 pounds of meatballs and her award winning chili.

Melissa came from the corporate world and spend five years working in accounting and commercial lending for Sun Bank in Florida. "I did some marketing which helps," she added.

But little by little she became more involved with the Broken Spoke and decided to buy it when the former owners were ready to retire.

She said she studied Jay Allen — the orginal owner of the Broken Spoke who is there this weekend to help them out — so she could learned what it was about him that made people love him.

Melissa said she learned above all that his customers were treated like family. She recalled one time when he was exhausted one of his customers bike broke down and he stayed two hours to help him fix it.

She said her biggest challenge with the Broken Spoke is keeping it open all summer. She said this year that won't happen but she expects to operate from Memorial Day to Labor Day next year.

"We want to be part of the local community," she said.

She also said the key to her being able to stay open for the entire summer season is to find a manager who she knows is capable of doing the job and who she can trust.

Michelle and the Looney Bin staff are already integral in the local community. Every year they host a widely popular pig roast and donate the proceeds to New Beginnings — non-profit group that assists battered women and their children.

The Looney Bin is also open year round. In the winter, Michelle said there are a large number of "regular" customers who come in with their families for dinner or who drop by for a beer or two.
She said they watch a lot of sports on television, chat about whatever, and those are the people who have become just like family to her. As for being a woman, she laughed and said, "Do you really think those people are going to let something happened to me."

"I love seeing my regulars on (Motorcycle) Week, too," she said. "Every year I get to catch up with my old friends too."

"Not very man women get the chance I have had and I don't know if they'd get the opportunity to give back to the community like I have," said Melissa.


CUTLINE: Above, Michelle Watson works the register Thursday night at the Looney Bin at the Weris in Laconia. She has owned the bar/restaurant for 10 years. At left, Melissa Penland, shown with her artist husband Bob Pomerenke just purchased the Broken Spoke Saloons in Laconia and in Daytona this February. She is also a partner in the Broken Spoke Campground in Sturgis, S.D. (Laconia Daily Sun photos/Gail Ober)